‘Celebration and Understanding’ part two: Empathy Lab

[This article is part of the Double Feature “Celebration and Understanding.” The two-part series explores the experiences of international students studying in Chambersburg. Part one focuses on Wilson College’s Muhibbah Night, a celebratory event comprised of international cuisine and performances. Part two describes Wilson College’s Empathy Lab, an immersive art installation that recreates the disruptive experiences international students face through immersive narrative.]

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. – “The person who picked me up from the airport didn’t take me to Wilson College first,” said James Pasaribu as he recalled the surreal experience of visiting Chambersburg for the first time.

“We somehow got talking about corn, and he took me to see a nine-foot stalk of corn. I thought, ‘Wow, everything really is bigger in America – unnaturally so!’ I looked at that stalk of corn, and all I could think was, ‘My God, what have they done to you?!’”

Welcome to Chambersburg.

In the time since that experience, Pasaribu has completed his undergraduate experience (Psychology and Philosophy double majors), and he is now in his first year of Wilson’s Master of Humanities program. He is also a central figure in the creation of the latest iteration of Empathy Lab, an immersive installation that will be open to the public from April 13-15 (the duration of Wilson College’s first annual ArtsFest).

“The vision of Empathy Lab is to create disruptive experiences that force somebody to experience the life of another,” said Pasaribu in an interview in his office. “You can say that as ‘another’ or ‘an other.’ Either way works.”

Specifically, the project explores what it’s like to leave a local community surrounded by friends and family, and be transplanted into a place where those support networks are gone – you may not necessarily know the language, you may not necessarily know the people, and you most likely have no friends. How do people cope with that? How do they rebuild those networks?

“Some people can do that, and some people don’t do that,” said Pasaribu. “What we’re trying to do with this particular round of Empathy Labs is now do we recreate that experience for people who have been here their entire lives, for people who have been close to family, close to friends, how do we give them an uncomfortable taste of what it’s like to be alone, essentially.”

Recreating the experience of international students for local audiences

Empathy Lab is in a converted study room in the John Stewart Memorial Library. Participants enter the darkened room, take a seat, and there they will begin hearing bits of stories from a larger narrative that will loop throughout the exhibit’s run.

“The idea is that you can come in at any time and listen to these stories at any time and piece together what’s missing here,” said Pasaribu. “Do a little bit of the work, a little investigation. What are they all trying to say? What is the common thread that unites them? How does this apply to my life?

The audio loop was created by the collaborative team of Professor Adam DelMarcelle and students Anaida Fahradyan and Pasaribu in conversation with Professor Melanie Gregg.

Pasaribu said, “We interviewed a bunch of international students and asked them about their experiences with being socially isolated – and not in the COVID way – but more in the way that they’re removed from their support networks.”

They were particularly concerned with identifying commonalities across the experiences. What have people done to make them feel alone? What have they done to themselves that made them feel more alone? What have others done to try to feel less alone?

Empathy Lab is a completely auditory experience so that visitors have to actively visualize the experiences that they are hearing. “The reasoning behind that,” said Pasaribu, “is that you can choose to close your eyes, you can turn a blind eye to things, but you can’t close your ears. You have to listen.” Participants have to listen to the experiences of others. They are forced to live the life of an other than themselves.

Pasaribu added: “You can just let your imagination flow. You can really delve into the experience of an other. You’re not distracted by other participants that may be in the space with you as well.”

The importance of finding a home away from home

Pasaribu considers himself lucky to be have been able to force himself to be social and active, but even he found it difficult to find people that he could lean on for support. Even worse than feeling alone was feeling like a burden when he would need to ask for favors like rides to get groceries because he didn’t have a car. What ultimately made the difference in his experience was his decision to say “yes” to everything. The decision to leave home and study in America is a leap of faith. However, upon arrival that energy needs to be maintained.

“The first thing you’ve got to be brave enough to do is throw yourself against the wall and see what sticks,” he said. “There will be parts of you that people gravitate to that you didn’t think was going to be the thing that connects you.”

Pasaribu never would have guessed, for example, that some of the best friendships he’s made here were through doing lighting technician work and design for stage plays – something he had no experience with before arriving at Wilson College. And now he returns the favor for other incoming students by encouraging them to continue putting themselves out there and trying new things.

It has been Pasaribu’s experience that international students are seeking a home away from home. Finding it is often the key to an international student’s social and academic success. More than just a place to stay, they need a support network of people they can turn to when they feel scared or alone or just want to hang out.

“Understand the importance of a home and how much international students need it,” he said.

Adding: “That’s the biggest thing we lost when we moved to a different place. I think if people realized just how much that would mean to us – and it doesn’t take a lot for that to be a real big thing – but when people open up their homes to us, it really makes us feel welcome. That’s huge.”

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